Two weekends ago I read an editorial by Margaret Wente published in the Globe and Mail. The article titled “Gender parity trumps excellence in science?” was a response to a recent report “Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension.” The report by the Council of Canadian Academies was commissioned due to the lack of female researchers in the 2008 Canada Excellence Research Chair program.
I appreciate many points raised by Margaret. I agree that government policies are often very short-sighted and include not much else other than “handouts” that actually could contribute to prejudice against female students or scientists (handouts are ridiculous – I would like to think that I received my scholarships and grants because I was capable of producing high quality research, not because as a data point I made the government look better). Often times discussions regarding gender issues within physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics (PCEM) involve only women, although this is slowly changing. On a less but somewhat relevant note, I have also seen female business executives making sexist jokes against their male counterparts – exactly the kind of behaviours that we women condemn when they are done by men.
But to say that there is no problem with the lack of women in PCEM is rather ignorant. In her article, Margaret says that
Nowhere is there a hint that one reason more women aren’t entering these fields is that maybe they don’t want to.
Is that the explanation we are going to use to stay status quo? Do we truly think that we have done what we can, and this lack of females in physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics is not because young girls lack role models or mentors in these fields, not because they lack the confidence to head into them, not because they don’t see them as options? Does it make any sense if we apply this same rationale to other issues in education, such as the relatively low participation rate in higher education for students from low income families? This reasoning does not work for me in any contexts.
Don’t get me wrong. I approve of doing more to recruit young women into science. I love it when girls take the prize at science fairs. Today, women get 24 per cent of all the PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, computers, engineering and math. Academically, they do just as well as men and often better. That’s great. Or is it? Should we aim for nothing less than 50-50? By the way, should we do the same for kindergarten teachers?
If 50-50 is not the magic number, then what makes 24% the one? And, why don’t we discuss the benefits of having males take up career paths traditionally considered by females – I have male friends who are nurses and daycare teachers and they enjoy their jobs. Or, is that also something that we should consider as “that’s just the way it is?”
Margaret’s article reminded me of the following video
Most of us, both males and females, are brought up a certain way and are expected to follow certain social norms. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a household where I was told that I could be who I wanted to become, and my toy bin was a clear demonstration of it: Lego bricks, Barbie dolls, Voltron robots, and a doctor’s kit (I admit that I was a tad spoiled :P). My upbringing in the end influenced the confidence I have in myself, my ability to hold my ground when I am challenged by someone (either male or female), and my eventual decision to go into science. But even with that I wish I had mentors in physical sciences or computer science – I likely would have gone into physics or computer science instead, if I had the chance to explore my options better.
My point is, it is not a choice if they don’t see the options.
There is an issue with the lack of females in physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. There is a desperate need for longitudinal data regarding female scientists in these fields so that we can assess the situation better (see postscript). At the same time, we should keep in mind that males are also subjected to gender pressures. Perhaps it is time that we involve everyone, male or female, in the discussion of gender roles and start looking at long term resolutions to make our society more competitive as a whole.
Postscript: This problem was pointed out by the committee in the report mentioned earlier in this post. I once worked on a grant proposal and had difficulty myself finding such data for Canada.